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Party Fabrication: Constitutional Reform and the Rise of Thai Rak Thai

  • Allen Hicken

Among the most interesting questions in Thai politics today is how to account for the rise and (until recently) the success of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party. This article describes and analyzes some of the factors that contributed to the rise and success of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai, arguing that neither Thaksin's personal assets nor the effects of the crisis are enough to explain Thai Rak Thai's rise and success. It focuses instead on the 1997 changes to Thailand's constitution. These institutional reforms were crucial because they altered Thailand's political-institutional landscape in fundamental ways. The reforms provided new opportunities and incentives for political actors that Thaksin and his party adeptly took advantage of. The argument presented is that the key reforms that helped pave the way for the rise of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai were those reforms that helped reduce the number of political parties and that increased the power of the prime minister relative to coalition partners and intraparty factions.

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An earlier version of this article was prepared for the International Conference of Constitutional Reform in the Philippines, Antipolo City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 8–9, 2005. I thank participants at that conference for their comments and am also grateful for the comments of attendees at talks at Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center, Michigan State University's Asian Studies Center, and the University of Michigan's Southeast Asian Public Lecture Series. Special thanks to Sombat Chantavong, Michael Nelson, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

1. See Pinthong, Chermsak, ed., Ruuthan Thaksin (Seeing through Thaksin), vols. 1 and 2 (Bangkok: Khokhit Duaykan Press, 2004).

2. McCargo, Duncan and Pathmanand, Ukrist, The Thaksinization of Thailand (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2005).

3. Chermsak, , Ruuthan Thaksin; McCargo and Ukrist, Thaksinization of Thailand; Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Baker, Chris, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2004); Hicken, Allen, “Constitutional Reform and Budgetary Politics in Thailand,” paper presented at the annual MPSA meeting and the 2005 Thai Studies Conference, April 2005.

4. Nelson, Michael, “Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra: From Election Triumph to Political Decline,” (online journal of the Australian Association of Asian Studies), (forthcoming).

5. These criticisms are fueled by quotes like the following from Thaksin. After arguing he had a sound understanding of democracy, he remarked, “Those who know less than me better shut up.” Peck, Grant, “Thaksin: Acerbic Autocrat or New-born Democrat?” The Irrawadd , February 7, 2005.

6. The sale of communications assets to a Singaporean firm also undermined Thaksin's support among those who supported him and Thai Rak Thai as bulwarks against foreign economic interests.

7. At the time of this writing, the courts have thrown out the results of the first election, which were boycotted by the major opposition parties. A new election is being planned.

8. Pasuk, and Baker, , Thaksin; Ukrist, McCargo, Thaksinization of Thailand.

9. Hewison, Kevin, “Crafting Thailand's New Social Contract,” Pacific Review 17, no. 4 (2004): 503522.

10. For a notable exception, see Chambers, Paul, “Evolving Toward What? Parties, Factions, and Coalition Behavior in Thailand Today,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (2005): 495520.

11. For details, see Connors, Michael, “Framing the ‘People's Constitutio,”’ in McCargo, Duncan, ed., Reforming Thai Politics (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2002), pp. 3772. See also Prudhisan, Jumbala, “Thailand: Constitutional Reform Amidst Economic Crisis,” in Southeast Asian Affairs 1998 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998), pp. 265–291.

12. The nature of the reforms was very much the reflection of middle-class (Bangkok) preferences (Connors, “Framing the People's Constitution”). See also McCargo, Duncan, “Thailand's January 2001 General Elections: Vindicating Reform?” in McCargo, Duncan, ed., Reforming Thai Politics (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2002).

13. BV was used in nineteenth-century Great Britain and is currently employed in Mauritius and for senate elections in the Philippines.

14. Seats were allocated by province with each province receiving the number of seats commensurate with its population. A small number of lightly populated provinces used one single-seat constituency that covered the entire province.

15. See Shugart, Matthew Soberg and Wattenberg, Martin P., eds., Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). See also Hicken, Allen and Kasuya, Yuko, “A Guide to the Constitutional Structures and Electoral Systems of Asia,” Electoral Studies 22, no. 1 (2003): 121–151.

16. If the MP is a constituency MP, a bielection is held to fill the vacant seat. If the MP is a party list MP, the seat is filled with the next person on the party's list. As a result, cabinet members are generally selected from party list MPs. Candidates must also now hold a bachelor's degree and abide by a new more stringent asset declaration requirement before they can run for office.

17. Formally it was the king who appointed the senators, on the advice of the prime minister.

18. SNTV is no longer used in South Korea, and since electoral reforms in the 1990s, SNTV is only used for elections to the upper chamber in Japan (see Hicken, and Kasuya, , “A Guide,” for more details about these electoral systems).

19. MacIntyre, Andrew J., The Power of Institutions: Political Architecture and Governance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

20. The effective number of electoral parties during this period was more than seven.

21. As discussed in more detail below, most Thai parties were also highly factionalized, which further multiplied the number of political actors. Parties were generally not unitary actors but, rather, party factions. See Ockey, James, “Business Leaders, Gangsters and the Middle Class” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1991); Chambers, Paul W., “Factions, Parties, Coalition Change, and Cabinet Durability in Thailand: 1979–2001” (PhD diss., Northern Illinois University, 2003).

22. For exceptions in the area of macroeconomic policy, see Christensen, Scott et al., Thailand: The Institutional and Political Underpinnings of Growth (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1993); and Hicken, Allen, “Parties, Policy and Patronage: Governance and Growth in Thailand,” in Campos, J. E. L., ed., Corruption: The Boom and Bust of East Asia (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2001).

23. Hicken, Allen, “Parties, Pork and Policy: Policymaking in Developing Democracies” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2002).

24. This is measured using the “effective number of parties” (ENP) formulation. ENP is defined as 1 divided by the sum of the weighted values for each party (Laakso, Marku and Taagepera, Rein, “Effective Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to West Europe,” Comparative Political Studies 12 [1979]: 327). In effect, what ENP does is weight party according to its size: parties with large vote shares are weighted more than parties with small shares. Hereafter when I refer to the number of parties, I will be using the ENP.

25. Specifically, the M+1 rule states that the number of parties should be approximately equal to the number of the seats in a constituency +1 (Cox, Gary W., Making Votes Count [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997]). So, given that most Thai constituencies had two or three seats, we would expect the effective number of parties in each constituency to be between three and four. What's more, the number of parties should vary by district magnitude, with more parties in constituencies with more seats.

26. Cox, , Making Votes Count; Cox, Gary W., “Electoral Rules and Electoral Coordination,” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999): 145161; Chhibber, Pradeep K. and Kollman, Ken, “Party Aggregation and the Number of Parties in India and the United States,” American Political Science Review 92 (1998): 329–342; Chhibber, Pradeep K. and Kollman, Ken, The Formation of National Party Systems: Federalism and Party Competition in Canada, Great Britain, India, and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

27. Thailand exhibits poorer aggregation than either Brazil or India—two countries notable for their lack of cross-district coordination.

28. However, by themselves cleavages are probably neither necessary nor sufficient to produce poor linkage.

29. The difference between Thai Buddhists and the Thai Muslim minority in the South has never given rise to separate, cleavage-based parties.

30. Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy.”

31. Cox, , Making Votes Count; Cox, , “Electoral Rules”; Chhibber, and Kollman, , “Party Aggregation”; Chhibber, and Kollman, , Formation of National Party Systems; Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy.” See Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy” for a discussion of other variables that affect the coordination calculation.

32. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the influence of the Senate waned as the bureaucrats and military officials were gradually replaced by representatives from the private sector and business.

33. Chambers, , “Factions, Parties.”

34. Author interviews with party officials, Bangkok, January-June 1999 and May-August 2004 (anonymity requested).

35. One of the most striking features of the 1997 constitution is its call for decentralization. Political and economic power has traditionally been highly centralized in Thailand. To the extent decentralization actually leads to greater political and economic power at the subnational level, coordination incentives should decrease. However, the decentralization provisions of the constitution had not been implemented at the time of the 2001 elections and were still in their infancy in the run-up to the 2005 elections. As a result, it is too soon to assess the effects of decentralization on cross-constituency coordination. I briefly discuss the progress toward decentralization in the conclusion.

36. Since complete constituency-level data are not yet available for the 2005 Thai elections, I have reported only estimated results here. However, an analysis of the preliminary data that do exist suggests a continuation of the trends that began in 2001.

37. TRT later gained an absolute majority when a smaller party decided to merge with TRT shortly after the election.

38. Thailand's system did not generate the degree of intraparty competition that occurs in systems where there are fewer seats than copartisan candidates in a given district, such as in SNTV systems.

39. Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy.”

40. Hicken, Allen, “How Do Rules and Institutions Encourage Vote Buying?” in Schaffer, Frederic C., ed., Democracy for Sale: The Causes, Consequences, and Reform of Vote Buying (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, forthcoming).

41. The constitution suspended this rule for the inaugural 2001 election.

42. Cox, Gary W. and McCubbins, Mathew D., “The Institutional Determinants of Policy Outcomes,” in Haggard, Stephan and McCubbins, Mathew D., eds., Presidents, Parliaments, and Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

43. Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy.”

44. In fact, candidates and parties have adapted their vote-buying strategies to the new electoral environment. For some examples, see “Dirty Politics: Vote-Buying Goes Hi-Tech,” The Nation , January 31, 2005.

45. Carey, John M. and Shugart, Matthew Soberg, “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas,” Electoral Studies 14, no. 4 (1995): 417435.

46. This does not mean they abandoned more traditional campaign strategies.

47. Nelson, Michael H., Thailand's House Elections of 6 January 2001: A Statistical Report , KPI Reports No. 2, Center for the Study of Thai Politics and Democracy, King Prajadhipok Institute, Nonthaburi, Thailand, 2002.

48. Illustrative of this point is the prominence of the Thai Rak Thai name and party logo on candidate posters—a departure from earlier eras when information linking a candidate to a particular party was often downplayed in campaign materials.

49. Croissant, Aurel and Pojar, Daniel J. Jr, “Quo Vadis Thailand? Thai Politics After the 2005 Parliamentary Election,” Strategic Insights 4, no. 6 (June 2005).

50. As the recent experience of Japan demonstrates, it is also possible that the personalism of the constituency races could bleed over into the party list race (McKean, Margaret and Scheiner, Ethan, “Japan's New Electoral System: Plus ça change …,” Electoral Studies 19, no. 4 [2000]: 447477).

51. The electoral procedure for the Senate—the single nontransferable vote—should also contribute to the endurance of personal strategies. Under normal conditions, SNTV is the epitome of a candidate-centered electoral system where parties take a backseat to individuals and factions. Thailand's version of SNTV goes beyond most other examples. Senate candidates are prohibited from belonging to a political party and are also not allowed to campaign for office. Since candidates cannot rely on party label to distinguish themselves from other candidates or campaign on policy differences, they have instead cultivated personal support networks similar to those used by House candidates. In fact, successful candidates have often been family members of prominent politicians and so rely on existing support networks (Nelson, Michael, “The Senate Elections of March 4, 2000 [etc., etc.],” in KPI Newsletter 1, no. 3 [2000]: 37).

52. Hewison, , “Crafting Thailand's New Social Contract.”

53. Hicken, , “Parties, Pork and Policy.”

54. Other parties also recognized the opportunity to pursue new electoral strategies and attempted to do so. They were less successful in part because of their association with the crisis and/or the costly economic reforms adopted in its wake.

55. Whether the new institutional powers were sufficient is a more difficult question, given the available evidence.

56. Chambers, , “Factions, Parties.”

57. “Sanoh in Open Rebellion,” Bangkok Post , June 9, 2005.

58. Some claimed that the government had amended the foreign ownership laws—increasing the percentage of foreign ownership permissible from 25 percent to 49 percent—in order to pave the way for the sale of Shin Corp.

59. The Constitutional Court's ruling came after the king of Thailand refused to directly intervene but instead urged the courts to rule whether the April poll was constitutional.

60. This likely delay is the result of the need to appoint new members to the Election Commission, which by law is a sixty-day process.

61. It appears Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai still command solid majorities in most of rural Thailand outside the South. Even in Bangkok, the center of anti-Thaksin mobilization, Thai Rak Thai enjoys a plurality of support among voters: 42 percent of Bangkok voters say they will vote for Thai Rak Thai in the next election as opposed to 16 percent for the opposition Democrat Party (“MPs Have a Chance to Slip 90-Day Chains,” The Nation , May 11, 2006, available at

62. For example, the limits on party switching have not stemmed the flow of candidates seeking to join TRT but have made it nearly impossible for dissatisfied TRT members to switch parties.

63. For a discussion of this in the context of budgetary policy, see Hicken, , “Constitutional Reform and Budgetary Politics.”

64. Hicken, , “Constitutional Reform and Budgetary Politics.”

65. See Pasuk, and Baker, , Thaksin, for a more detailed discussion of the partisanization/marginalization of these superintendent institutions.

66. Painter, Martin, “Thaksinocracy or Managerialization? Reforming the Thai Bureaucracy,” Southeast Asia Research Center Working Paper, May 6, 2005, available at

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